Choosing which supplements to take can be tricky because there's an almost inexhaustible array for men to choose from. Unfortunately, the data and scientific evidence about their effectiveness is often incomplete or inconsistent. So how do you determine just which supplements really make a difference in men's health?
First, research the supplements' actual health benefits, as well as their relevance to the most common health problems men encounter, such as heart disease, prostate cancer and diabetes. It's always important to discuss any supplements with a physician familiar with your health history and specific health needs.
To help you get started, here's a list of five of the most important supplements for improving your overall health.
If you think garlic is simply used to flavor Mediterranean dishes -- or that it's a charm to ward off vampires -- then think again. Garlic is an herb that's used as a dietary supplement and may have significant benefits when it comes to heart health. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), studies have shown that garlic can reduce blood pressure by as much as 8 percent in people who already experience high blood pressure. Other research indicates that garlic may have a slight effect on lowering cholesterol and may reduce atherosclerosis, or the hardening of arteries with age. All of these factors contribute to a healthier heart and may reduce the risk of heart disease. Some studies have also determined that eating garlic as part of your diet can reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer, including colon, rectal and stomach cancers. While no clinical studies have confirmed the power of garlic supplements to fight cancer, the likely benefits of garlic make it a no-brainer for this list of important supplements.
Chromium is a type of metal known as an essential trace element because a very small amount of it is important for human health. One of the biggest health concerns facing men is the onset of Type 2 diabetes, so any supplement that can help beat back the threat of the disease has a definite place on this list.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that chromium supplements help normalize blood sugar levels, while chromium deficiency can cause glucose intolerance that leads to Type 2 diabetes. The NIH also acknowledges that taking chromium may lower insulin levels. This could help improve the function of insulin in people with Type 2 diabetes, though this should be coordinated carefully with a physician.
Unfortunately, the evidence is less convincing for chromium supplements as a way to combat obesity and promote weight loss. And while many people use chromium as a supplement for body conditioning, it doesn't seem to have much effect in this realm, either.
That said, it's possible that prevention and management of diabetes make it a good idea to take at least 35 mcg (micrograms) a day. Look for "chromium picolinate" on the label, as studies have found this to be the most effective form of chromium.
Plant Sterols and Stanols
Plant sterols and stanols are naturally occurring substances that come from many fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, cereals and vegetable oils. Research shows they can help reduce the risk of heart disease by affecting cholesterol levels.
By blocking the amount of cholesterol absorbed in the small intestine, plant stanols and sterols help lower what's known as low-density lipoprotein (LDL), commonly referred to as the "bad cholesterol." Studies show that these substances can cut LDL by as much as 6 to 15 percent without lowering any of the "good cholesterol" known as HDL. By keeping LDL from getting to the arteries, plant sterols and stanols can help prevent heart disease. Consuming 2 grams of plant sterols or stanols each day is recommended for their cholesterol-busting benefits.
It's common to hear about all the ways the sun is bad for us, but it's also important to remember that it's our leading provider of vitamin D. Although we can also get this very important vitamin through some fatty fishes and certain fortified foods, the sun is our primary source. Given the serious concerns about skin cancer, it's an excellent idea to make sure vitamin D makes it into your collection of supplements as well.
A vitamin D deficiency can lead to bone conditions such as osteomalacia and osteoporosis. A number of other studies indicate a possible link between vitamin D and a reduced risk of multiple sclerosis, cancer of various types and both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. Although the NIH says further research is needed to validate these links, there are plenty of reasons to make sure you get the recommended 200 to 400 IU (international units) per day.
Fish Oil (Omega-3 Fatty Acids)
The question with Omega-3 fatty acids: Where to begin when listing the benefits? These polyunsaturated fats are found naturally in fish and vegetable oils (especially flaxseed oil), and they play an important role in a number of body functions.
As a health supplement, omega-3s lower fats in the body called triglycerides, which are associated with heart disease and diabetes. Taking fish oil supplements may lower blood pressure slightly, slow the hardening of arteries and help prevent cardiovascular disease. In addition to helping people with healthy hearts keep them that way, omega-3 fatty acids can also lower the risk of dying from heart disease for those people who already have cardiovascular problems.
As if this weren't enough, studies have shown that fish oil may have additional benefits for a number of other diseases and conditions. The science is sometimes inconclusive, but the NIH considers that fish oil may possibly be effective for treating kidney problems, certain types of cancer, depression, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and a whole list of other medical conditions. In short, if there's one supplement you want in your daily regimen, it's fish oil.
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- Anderson, Richard A., et al. "Supplemental chromium effects on glucose, insulin, glucagon, and urinary chromium losses in subjects consuming controlled low-chromium diets." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. November 1991. (Feb. 18, 2011)http://www.ajcn.org/content/54/5/909.full.pdf+html
- The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. "Plant Sterols and Stanols." July 15, 2009. (Feb. 16, 2011)http://my.clevelandclinic.org/healthy_living/cholesterol/hic_plant_sterols_and_stanols.aspx
- Hobday, Erin. "The Best Supplements for Men." Men's Health. June 20, 2006. (Feb. 15, 2011)http://www.menshealth.com/nutrition/best-supplements-men
- Medline Plus (U.S. National Library of Medicine). "Chromium." Nov. 18, 2010. (Feb. 17, 2011)http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/932.html
- Medline Plus (U.S. National Library of Medicine). "Fish oil." Nov. 18, 2010. (Feb. 17, 2011) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/993.html
- Medline Plus (U.S. National Library of Medicine). "Garlic." Nov. 18, 2010. (Feb. 17, 2011)http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/300.html
- Medline Plus (U.S. National Library of Medicine). "Vitamin D." Nov. 24, 2010. (Feb. 17, 2011)http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/929.html
- National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine (under NIH). "Garlic." Dec. 23, 2010. (Feb. 16, 2011)http://nccam.nih.gov/health/garlic/ataglance.htm
- National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine (under NIH). "Omega-3 Supplements: An Introduction." Nov. 17, 2010. (Feb. 16, 2011)http://nccam.nih.gov/health/omega3/introduction.htm
- National Institutes of Health. "Dietary Supplements." July 10, 2009. (Feb. 16, 2011)http://health.nih.gov/topic/DietarySupplements/FoodNutritionandMetabolism
- Office of Dietary Supplements (under NIH). "Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Chromium." Aug. 5, 2005. (Feb. 17, 2011)http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/chromium/
- Office of Dietary Supplements (under NIH). "Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin D." Jan. 13, 2011. (Feb. 17, 2011)http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/vitamind/